TALLAHASSEE – Following a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court, Palm Beach voters will be making their choice for an open county judge vacancy in August.
When Palm Beach County Judge Laura Johnson turned in her resignation, the seat became open. A dispute began over the position when Gov. Rick Scott wanted to appoint a replacement. Local defense attorney Gregg Lerman was interested in running for the open seat, and he petitioned the Supreme Court to decide if the position would go to the voters or trigger the governor’s power of appointment.
Lerman argued that the people should have the right to vote on the position because Johnson’s resignation is not effective until Jan. 3, when the new judge would be sworn in. There is no effective vacancy in the seat.
Scott’s office argued that Johnson resigned after just two years of a six-year term. Thus, it was a vacancy that should be filled by gubernatorial appointment.
“I won the lawsuit,” Lerman told the Florida Record. “Unfortunately, the court ruled that the qualifying period would be open an additional week, and another candidate filed to run, making this a three-way race instead of a two-way.”
Before the lawsuit was filed, Susan Bucher, supervisor of elections, accepted the paperwork of Lerman and County Magistrate Thomas Baker for the position. According to Lerman, Bucher accepted the paperwork despite instructions by Secretary of State Ken Detzner not to. Following the court’s decision, local attorney Dana Santino also put her paperwork in to the election board.
The election will be held on Aug. 30 during the primary election, which has national significance because voters will be choosing candidates from both parties to run for U.S. senator for the general election in November. In addition, there will be a number of vacancies in the state House and Senate, state and county judges, and other officers.
“I need more than 50 percent to win the election in August," Lerman said. "If (none of the candidates) receive more than 50 percent of the vote in August, it goes to a runoff in November."
Lerman funded the lawsuit to the Supreme Court himself. He cannot recover attorney’s fees for financing the lawsuit, even though it benefited the other candidates.
“We are happy to get on with the campaign,” he said.
According to The Florida Bar News, there are three other county judge seats that are also in limbo. The circuit court judgeships in the 7th, 10th and 12th circuits are in dispute. Potential candidates in each circuit have filed petitions with the Supreme Court challenging the refusal of the Department of State to accept their qualification papers.
The difference with these three seats is that the effective dates of the resignation of the incumbent judges actually falls a few days before the terms would have ended, leaving the position vacant and open to a gubernatorial appointment.
“The particular governor doesn’t want the people to vote on judges,” Lerman said. “But it should be the right of the people to decide who serves.”